Fighting for the legacy of black Civil War vets

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For Chandra Beale of Baltimore, Veteran’s Day has special meaning, and with good reason. Her family can claim six generations of African-American veterans dating from the Civil War to the present.

“We’re proud of their service,” said Beale, who has a son currently serving in the Navy, and whose paternal bloodline includes a member of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). “Not many people can say that they actually know of an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.”

Beale’s great-grandfather John Aquilla Wilson was only 15 when he left his home in Pennsylvania to enlist in the Union Army. Historians believe the soldier was the nation’s oldest living Civil War veteran when he died in 1942 at age 101.

This Veteran’s Day, as military personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and other 20th Century conflicts are honored, some are also pausing to acknowledge heroes whose sacrifices centuries ago were just as significant to America.

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More than 180,000 African-American men from various parts of the country were part of the USCT. With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching in 2011, there’s been a push among descendants, historians and others to ensure their contributions aren’t forgotten.

“When we speak of the pride of this nation, we have to include those African-Americans who fought valiantly during the Civil War,” said Lenwood Sloan, who heads cultural and heritage efforts for the state of Pennsylvania. “This is not just black history, it’s American history.”

Sloan helped stage a recent four-day celebration in the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Uniformed regiments, re-enactors and color guards from multiple states, including North Carolina, New York, Virginia, New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, marched in a grand parade that partly re-enacted an oft-forgotten historical event, known as the Pennsylvania Grand Review.

On November 14, 1865, hundreds of black troops from 25 states who’d served during the Civil War, marched proudly in uniform through the streets. Local residents — including leading black citizens of the day and white abolitionists — rallied to praise their service to the nation.

Black troops had been excluded from the Grand Review of the Armies, a gala military procession held in Washington, D.C., following the war.

The irony was that even President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the importance of black troops in the Union’s ultimate victory over the southern Confederacy.

“Most Americans don’t know this history,” said Sloan. Given the sesquicentennial of the Civil War next year, he added, “We believed it was the right time,” to revisit it.

The White Carnation League — an alliance of USCT soldiers’ descendants, scholars and supporters — worked with leading genealogists to help families across the country conduct research and chart their histories.

Young African-American males (mostly college students) volunteered to study the lives of the soldiers and portray them during the weekend, complete with replicated USCT uniforms.

Meanwhile, organizers spread the word via Facebook, family reunions and ads. Hundreds of USCT descendants traveled from as far away as California, Nevada, Wisconsin and Missouri for the festivities.

Jeannette L. Molson, a resident of Woodland, Calif. was among those who made the journey. She has spent more than 30 years doing research on her own and with a genealogist, and has discovered 14 relatives who were UCST veterans.

“Preserving this history is important to me, and I encourage others to do it,” says Molson, whose great-great grandfather, Samuel D. Molson was on the original 1865 Grand Review organizing committee. “It’s an honor to be part of this, to see how strongly my relatives felt about their country and freedom.”

Darlene Colon of Lancaster and about a dozen relatives also traveled to Harrisburg. Colon, whose family tree includes branches along the East Coast, relied upon oral history and genealogical records to identify nine ancestors who were USCT veterans.

“Well, to find out that I had so many ancestors fighting in the Civil War, all I could feel was a swelling of pride,” said Colon, whose great-great-grandfather, Abraham Quamony enlisted in February 1865 in Philadelphia, most likely at Camp William Penn. He became a corporal and saw service around Virginia, Maryland and D.C. “I felt the need to tell our family, `Look what they have done for us,’ so that we could have better lives.”

Colon also lives history — literally. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Past Players, who portray historic figures. She is among a growing number of African American Civil War re-enactors nationwide, including FREED (Female Re-enactors of Distinction) who want a more inclusive brand of history conveyed.

“Sometimes people will ask, `Why are you dressed like that?” said Colon, referring to her 19th Century dress with full crinoline and bonnet. “What they don’t realize is that not all blacks were slaves, or were dressed in rags. There were black men and women who were educated and owned property,” she said.

To those who may wonder if such history is relevant today, one prominent Philadelphia pastor believes it is.

“It’s sad to say that our country is in many ways as divided as it was in 1865,” said Rev. Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME church, once a recruiting station for black men during the Civil War. “We have some of the same nagging issues,” including issues involving race, he added. “At some point, we’re going to have to reconcile these things.”

Meanwhile, John Aquilla Wilson’s descendants cherish mementos like his honorable discharge document, uniform, and some photographs taken later in life.

He’s interred at Fawn Grove Cemetery in York County, Pennsylvania, along with 29 other members of the USCT.

“I tell my grandkids that they should not take their heritage for granted,” said Beale. “I know people who barely know their parents, much less their ancestors. I realize how lucky we are.”

There will be wreath-laying events across Pennsylvania on Nov. 14, including at restored cemeteries where USCT troops have been laid to rest. For more information, visit www.visitPA.com/GrandReview.